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‘Future Tense’: The New Link Between Arts and Technology

They sat in the half light of the room, caught up in their individual thoughts as the screen before them filled and flashed. Cameras zoomed and panned. Lines intersected. The words over the rush of pictures were of blackouts and incoming, data and delivery, gee-whiz technologies, response and interaction.

Experiences too familiar in our times.

But this was all about peaceful pursuits.

The Gulf War was playing out on other screens in other rooms late last week at the Los Angeles Hilton.

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Yet for three days at a conference organized by the Getty Center for Education in the Arts, the link between real-time war news and technology’s movers and shakers was so often evident: the awesome, almost unimagined capabilities of computer systems.

There has been a sort of rocky, fickle relationship for years between artists and the geniuses of technology (opposites aren’t always mutually attractive). Composer Morton Subotnick out at CalArts occasionally has crashed through walls with his electronic symphonies. Nam June Paik has constructed murals of video images. Polaroid images and Xerox prints have hung in galleries.

About 800 artists, educators and computer dreamers gathered in the Getty’s garden of electronic delights and heard about, saw, touched, prodded and worked an array of digital devices that may do for art and learning what Gutenberg’s press did for literacy: spread the word, interactively.

The conference’s umbrella title was “Future Tense.” The purpose was to see what computers could do, especially now that common forces seem to be driving everything--image and sound systems, new-age computers, compact disc and video systems--all could work from the same basic technology.

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Computers with moving images, computers with real sounds (beeps are out; keyboards are in), computers that can respond and challenge users. On one 5-inch disc everything you ever wanted to know about Beethoven’s Fifth or the career of Fleetwood Mac.

It was for many at this gathering a time of revelation.

On large screens in two conference rooms, a computer-scanned image of Pablo Picasso’s classic painting “Guernica” came up. At the podium, Robert Abel of Synapse Technologies Inc., prepared to open up the painting by demonstrating the multimedia qualities of the computer and its new programs.

Prompts and menus appeared on the screen. A cursor moved. An electronic mouse was nudged. The screen filled with close-ups of anguished faces from the larger painting. The cursor moved. A film image appeared of a Spanish woman who as a child had lived in Guernica when it was bombed during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. Her voice filled the room with her memories of the bombing, filling in, too, the details of the pictured anguish. The cursor moved. More details. Picasso’s preliminary and mid-term sketches, the evolution of the finished work. The cursor moved. Images of Picasso, the history of the man in text and voices. The cursor moved. Images of war, the air bombings, one arms factory and the one bridge that remained after the bombings.

It stimulated, it exhausted.

Then musician Robert Winter of UCLA showing what could be done with a basic Macintosh computer and a CD rom, the digital device that does for words and pictures what other CDs did for sound. On the screen, a display of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” Winter calls what he and his colleagues do computer publishing, computer authorship. As the cursor moved and the mouse was clicked, he could call up individual instruments, individual displays and explanations of cadences, details of the ballet, details of the period, the history, the musical bases of this work.

It stimulated, it exhausted.

Composer-musician Tod Machover called technology the glue for things that don’t fit so well together, like man and machine. In sound and pictures he demonstrated electronic technologies, new sounds, enhanced traditional music. Then the data glove, a motion-sensitive wired mitt that fit over his left hand as he conducted an orchestra. The movement of his fingers and his hand made sounds of their own. The conductor was instrument. The orchestra itself a computer.

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It stimulated, it exhausted.

There was Stan Cornyn of Warner New Media demonstrating his company’s multimedia, interactive $10,000 “The Whole Megillah” project. Up on the screen a live professional basketball game. Hit the prompt and a voice describes offensive strategy, hit another and there’s defensive strategy, hit another and get on-screen instant, individual statistics, get another prompt and choose what angle you want to watch the game. Then on the screen was Fleetwood Mac. The viewer had his choices again. The viewer as director, calling his shots, the whole group or individuals. Or instead, interviews with group members, background pictures, sound and data on them and their songs. Move the cursor, hit the mouse.

It stimulated, it exhausted.

Session after session, the people who help make decisions on how art, music, theater, literature and dance are taught in public and private places heard about these interactive techniques, this brave new world of hypercards, scanners, worms and icons, of computer programs capable of teaching, bringing about understanding, interpretations. They also heard a call for humanity at Saturday’s closing session as El Teatro Campesino founder-artistic director Luis Valdez portrayed technologies as a vital extension of human imagination.

But we have already entered this brave new computer world.

Some hardware is in the stores, whether at a bottom price of $2,000 or the “megillah” price of $10,000. Some of the discs, too, are in certain stores, generally ranging down from $100 each. More of both are on their way.

Whether they get into classrooms and into homes may be another matter.

Questions that could not be answered by any computer-processing software kept popping up. For schools and museums, the traditional worry: Would there ever be enough money for these new, seemingly 21st-Century projects?

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For manufacturers and producers there is a different concern: Would this rush of technology from so many competing, noncompatible companies produce chaos? Would competitors kill themselves off, leaving only the biggest or no one to survive?

For the planners another worry: What really is wanted and needed? What will sell? Are software programs on Guernica and “The Rite of Spring” the desired teaching tools?

Perhaps a year from now in another, more nurtured garden of other electronic delights, the answers will sprout. One enthusiastic academic found inspiration in quite a different direction.

“Think,” he told a listener, “of the money-making possibilities. Arcades and store-front theaters. Big screens and videos. Put yourself on the screens with stars. Visual karaoke clubs. Virtual reality at the mall.”


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